Throughout my childhood summers, a crop of cucumbers dangled from my grandmother's fence. Even when I was a toddler, a pick-your-own trip to her back yard was the highlight of any visit. I could wash and eat that cuke, skin and all, while it was still sun-warm and juicy.
I've been a cucumber addict ever since.
For me, cucumbers make a salad. Their sweet, delicate flavor eased my transition from iceberg to the stronger-flavored salad greens.
And when my parents' garden produced fresh cucumbers, our family indulged in a delicious, fat-free, simple-to-make cucumber and onion salad:
Peel and thinly-slice any available cucumbers. Layer into a bowl, alternating with thin slices of onion and a little salt and pepper. Put a heavy plate or bowl on top of the stacked cucumbers and let them stand for about an hour to press out some of the juices. Then add enough vinegar (white or apple cider) to cover one-third of the cucumbers. Add water to barely cover the cucumbers. Stir in a teaspoon or two of sugar, just enough to take the sharp edge off the vinegar and mellow the flavor. Chill. Serve.
Unfortunately, that's as close to a recipe as our family ever had. We just did it by taste and tradition.
But despite my love for cucumbers, they never appear, by name, on lists of vegetables that reduce cancer risks.
They're not cruciferous (cabbage family) or allium (onion family) vegetables. They're not tomatoes, carrots, or dark green and leafy.
In fact, cucumbers are not outstanding in any known vitamin or mineral, either.
Still, I think they're good for me. They provide lots of fluid and a little fiber (when the seeds and well-scrubbed peel are eaten). They taste good. And my guess is, as we explore the newly discovered world of phytochemicals, we'll find some anti-cancer agents lurking in cucumbers, too.
And here's the first clue. A review article published recently in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows a whopping 85 percent of nearly 200 studies reviewed found fruits and vegetables-- in general -- protect against a variety of cancers. It didn't matter what kind they were.
There are some powerhouses, of course. Of studies that looked at specific vegetables, 70 percent or more found that allium vegetables, carrots, green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables and tomatoes protect against cancer.
So there it is. All fruits and vegetables seem to provide a measure of cancer protection. This is a happy note. It means variety is best, an important idea in a country seeking a "magic bullet," one single food to solve all our problems.
Some time back a researcher suggested women should eat broccoli every day because it prevented breast cancer in mice. Bad idea.
While broccoli is a powerful, good-tasting vegetable, eating it (or any other vegetable, even cucumbers) every day eliminates too many others. And you'll probably get sick of it and maybe stop eating it altogether. So variety seems a better strategy. We can indulge in the veggies and fruits we love while learning to eat some others that still seem a little foreign.
Steinmetz offers these ideas for eating more fruits and vegetables: Try one new fruit or veggie each week. Go beyond bananas. Try apples, grapes, berries or mandarin oranges on cereal. Choose fruit as a snack. Satisfy a "sugar craving" with dried fruit (raisins, apricots, dates, figs) instead of candy. Stock fruit or vegetable juice in your desk drawer to replace soft drinks. Indulge in a fruit parfait. Layer fresh, frozen or canned fruit with yogurt. Bake an apple, peach, pear or banana for dessert. Add raw sweet potatoes, asparagus tips, jicama and broccoflower to traditional carrot and celery sticks on party vegetable platters. Add cooked veggies to tacos, spaghetti, lasagna or pizza. Make frozen banana, pineapple and strawberry kabobs for kids.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 4/01/97